A trio of offbeat new thrillers portray individuals in tight spots—some literally, claustrophobically so—from which they may never get out alive. One is near-future sci-fi, while the others traverse the range of “elevated” horror, avoiding most familiar trappings and tropes of that genre while nonetheless hinging on uncanny and/or lethally perilous situations.
The space opera is I.S.S., though that term suggests an expansiveness pretty much absent from this tale of rapidly degenerating camaraderie in tight quarters. Ariana DeBose (who won an Oscar as Anita in Spielberg’s West Side Story remake) plays an excited new arrival at the International Space Station, where she joins a rotating team of fellow scientists. The other Americans currently onboard are essayed by Chris Messina and John Gallagher Jr.; their Russian colleagues by Pilou Asbaek (the Danish actor of A Hijacking and A War), Masha Mashkova, and Costa Ronin. She’s barely begun adjusting to the weird wonders of zero-gravity research, however, when disturbances on the surface of planet Earth below reveal something horrible: War has broken out between their respective nations.
What this bodes for humanity’s future—will there even be one?—is as yet anyone’s guess. But beyond throwing the crew into a panic over the fate of loved ones, it also places them in a harrowing immediate circumstance. While most communications are now down, what if the two superpowers’ governments order their in-command astronauts to “take control” of the space station?
That indeed comes to pass, making most of I.S.S. a twisty suspense-action narrative in which the rapidly dwindling protagonists are motivated by fear, duty, betrayal, revenge, and simple selfishness. Events illustrate a basic principle: It’s hard to hold onto your sense of brotherly love when you’re convinced others want to kill you. Effectively directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite from Nick Shafir’s intelligent screenplay, this isn’t a knockout, but it’s reasonably tense, as well as credible and well-acted. It’s already playing limited theaters including SF’s Metreon.
Meanwhile back on terra firma, country life is anything but tranquil in two horror-ish features. Ostensibly set in the Pacific Northwest, though shot in Northern Ireland, Andrew Baird’s Sunrise seems to take place more or less in the present day—but it feels more like a 19th-century western or plantation drama. The kind where a vicious bad man has placed himself above the law, terrorizing anyone unluckily enough to live in his fiefdom. They either become his flunkies, or his targets. In this case the tyrant is Reynolds (Guy Pearce), a racist bully and general mean cuss who owns almost everything in this depressed mountain area, and feels entitled to anything he doesn’t. When a family of Chinese emigres he wants evicted insist on standing their legal ground, he kills the husband as thoughtlessly as he might squash a bug.
But the as-yet-unknowingly widowed Yan Loi (Chrystal Yu) refuses to budge despite her spouse’s “disappearance,” even for the sake of their two children. They get an unexpected ally when out of the woods stumbles a disheveled man (Alex Pettyfer as Fallon) who’s clearly undergone some trauma—and whose related reasons for hating Reynolds are left murky for some time. So is the purported regional Native American mythos of “The Red Coat,” a “sacred forest demon” that requires blood sacrifice. It turns out that substance is what Fallon needs to survive, too.
Written by Ronan Blaney, Sunrise avoids vampire cliches (so much that the title doesn’t really have any relevance), but doesn’t develop its supernatural elements much in any other direction. There are some hamfisted speeches for Yan and Reynolds—we get that he’s a racist (and Pearce does make him detestable), so she doesn’t need to ponderously point that out any more than he needs to ponderously detail his MAGA-esque views. The handsomely photographed film has lots of atmosphere (albeit undercut by a routine musical score), and some eventual hallucinogenic aspects. But it simply doesn’t work up enough mystery or excitement before an underwhelming climax, leaving the whole slow-moving enterprise feeling half-baked. It’s available in limited theaters and on VOD platforms from Lionsgate as of last weekend.
The Utah desert likewise looks fine in The Seeding, another movie that retains visual interest even as the vague story takes too long adding up to very little. Scott Haze plays Stone, a man who drives, then hikes to an outlook in order to photograph an eclipse. Walking back, he discovers just off-trail a lone boy who claims he’s been separated from his parents. But this lad lures him deeper into the brush, until our protagonist is again alone, now thoroughly lost. In the dead of the night he spies lights, climbing down a steep ravine’s ladder to an isolated shack, where sole resident Alina (Kate Lyn Sheil) seems neither surprised to see him nor particularly helpful re: his desire to get back to his car.
The next morning, Stone is baffled, then dismayed, then furious to realize there is no way out of this mini-canyon; the ladder is now gone, his hostess close-mouthed and resigned. Perhaps she, too, is a prisoner of the feral boys he eventually sees on the ridges overhead, “strays” who seem to enjoy taunting their captives from afar. Any attempt at escape proves fruitless, even dangerous. But what is he here for?
There’s an eventual answer of sorts in writer-director Barnaby Clay’s first narrative feature, if little real explanation; a dab of mysticism and (as in Sunrise) some druggy imagery have to suffice. That’s not enough to sustain 100 minutes, despite the proven abilities of the two main actors, plus the music video-veteran filmmaker’s firm sense of style. Successfully prioritizing style over substance is harder than some distinctive talents make it look, however, and Clay is not at their level yet. Magnolia Pictures releases The Seeding to limited theaters and VOD on Fri/26.